Thursday, August 20, 2009


Hope Good, publisher of “Treasure State Lifestyles Montana,” has been commissioning short historical and local essays from me. She has generously agreed to let me reprint those pieces on this blog. Look for the courtesy magazines in waiting rooms and at various advertisers around the area. What you’ll find here are just the stories that I have supplied.


The first story is about the Belgian community that has been a big part of Valier. Bob Scriver’s daughter, Margaret Skogan, finished high school in Valier and married a DeSmet, part of that Belgian community.

Valier sprang up where it is through a confluence of forces. One of the most deliberate was the importation of a Belgian village to what is still called “Belgian Hill.” Eight percent of the Valier population still self-identifies as Belgian and they include some of the most diligent and prosperous families. At first there was a little village called “Williams,” which has since withered and dispersed, leaving the Belgian church, Sacred Heart Mission, and its graveyard under the shelter of the ridge, now easily recognized because of the line of receivers and transponders on top.

Victor Day, Vicar General of the Diocese of Helena, was a native of Belgium so he welcomed the idea hatched in the interest of bringing farmers to the newly irrigated land and helping them escape the ravages of WWI. Father Shevlin, the local pastor, and Emile Monroe, an early guide, met the families and sheltered them in an eight room house “owned by Bishop Carroll” and previously the ranchhouse of the Conrad Circle Cattle Company. A part of that company was the Block Hanging Seven, the ranch where Lake Francis and the other components of the Pondera Canal Company were developed.

The devout farmers were meant to be stable and productive, not prone to the disorder of the oil town to the north, Cut Bank. White people were needed to settle because Swift Dam and the dependent irrigation grid were partly on the reservation and Birch Creek had only recently become the southern boundary of the reservation. The Conrad brothers didn’t bother with permissions and documents, and tried to get the boundary moved even farther north because of the good land between Birch and Badger Creeks, already under irrigation though not very effectively. They knew that occupation by law-abiding whites would help their goals.

The Catholic Church Extension Society helped to build the little church which endured from 1914 to 1963, helping the transplants keep alive their identity as it had been in Belgium. As they learned to speak English and the little town of Williams disintegrated, these people attached to Valier, helping to shape its identity. Principally, European farmers were accustomed to living in a village and traveling out to the fields daily while American assumptions about homesteads meant actually occupying the farmed land, a lonesome practice for farm wives. Valier is often best understood in the European pattern, as a hub with spokes.

In the Sacred Heart Mission days there were twenty-two weddings, twenty babies baptized, and twenty-eight funeral masses. For a while the old European festivals persisted. The church still stands and the graveyard is maintained. A side road from highway 44 provides access. Don’t be surprised if someone nearby meets you there. It is still cherished.


Each issue of “Lifestyles” concentrates on a different community. This story harks back to the dedication of the Lewis, Clark and Sacajawea monument in Fort Benton.

The fate of the nation was determined when President Thomas Jefferson, a framer of the Declaration of Independence, bought the Louisiana Purchase which was defined by the drainage of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. He sent Lewis and Clark to discover how far that drainage reached, using the waterway for the great highway it still is.

The northern limit of continuously navigable water was Fort Benton, naturally the town to want to do something big for the 200th birthday of the nation on the 4th of July, 1976. That’s “big” as in “really big statue” of Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea and the baby Pomp. And there it still is along the levee. On the Fourth the town held a major parade that included the sculptor, Bob Scriver, riding his beloved horse, Gunsmoke, as well as all sorts of characters from mountain men (Corky Evans) to a ten-foot-tall stilt-walking Uncle Sam. (Didn’t get his name.) There weren’t seventy-six trombones, but there were a LOT of fine marching bands and a kilt-wearing pipe band from Alberta as well as floats.

The statue itself was “veiled” with a huge tarp and “unveiled” by Scriver. At the time Montana wasn’t so used to giant statues and the foundry head from New York City, Bob Spring, attended the dedication, beaming at his work.

Since then Fort Benton has repeated its role as the mother of Great Falls. Paris Gibson, a rancher from Minneapolis who had moved to Fort Benton, traveled to the Great Falls and realized with that power source there ought to be a city. Great Falls people at the dedication of the big Lewis and Clark statue were inspired to commission their own version which now stands under a giant flag.

Since those days Fort Benton has reclaimed much human history from Indian encampments to the mysterious death of the first governor, from the wrecks and conflagrations of the steam paddle-wheelers to the faithfulness of a sheep herder’s dog. The original fort is rebuilt. Yet the town remains a modest ag center, showing you don’t need to live in New York City to be sophisticated. In fact, as soon as Europeans realized they could step off a sea-going ship and onto the deck of a steamship, royalty and fine artists eagerly traveled in what amounted to a floating hotel. Prince Maximilian, Audubon, and others were anxious to see the far West.

When Lewis and a sub-group of the expedition had been to the northernmost reaches of the Marias River and realized that the drainage ended at the 49th parallel rather than the fiftieth as hoped, they met a party of young Blackfeet horse herders and killed two of them in a skirmish over guns. Within decades Culbertson and his beautfiul and resourceful Blackfeet wife, Natawista, were holding court on a steamboat that brought in supplies to the Blackfeet and new settlers, then removed thousands of beaver plews on the way back to St. Louis to spend the winter. Wood hawks made their living all along the river by cutting and piling cords of fuel for those paddle-wheelers. Until the railroads were built, this was the only practical means of moving raw baled buffalo hides to the cities of the east where they became conveyor belts for the new factories.

When Lewis and Clark, reunited and homebound, got to the shores of Fort Benton, they could not have guessed they would be immortalized in bronze. What they did understand was that they were only weeks from a celebratory dinner party in Saint Louis, complete with oysters and champagne. In 1976 we settled for a smashing parade!

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